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[Review] Sennheiser IE800: Appreciation, Frustration and a bunch of What-Ifs

post #1 of 417
Thread Starter 

Introduction


By some strange twist of fate, I’ve been pretty much the only head-fier who‘s owned a Sennheiser IE800 and posted impressions for over a month now. Maybe some of my less flattering posts have scared other buyers off. Or maybe limited availability is the reason why IE800 impressions have been mostly comprised of my lone monologue so far. For better or worse, I think it’s time to wrap up my thoughts, so here we go...


Believe it or not, this is not meant to be a damning review. I’m not someone who gets a kick out of bashing. The IE800 are, in some ways, extraordinarily good IEMs. I predict there will be other reviews, who’ll praise them to the skies. There‘ll probably be hype, and rightfully so. Don’t get me wrong, these phones belong up there with the very best, be it universals or customs.


Still, after the initial wave of enthusiasm, there'll be frustration over questionable design choices, and there'll be second thoughts. What if Senn would have tuned the IE800 just a little less bassy? What if they'd designed them more over-ear friendly, to avoid microphonics? What if they'd just used standard tips, so we wouldn't have to worry about losing them? What if… ?

 

 

Links


Here's a link to Rin's analysis of the IE800, based on the unit that was used for my review.

 

700

 


Technology / Manufacturer Specs


Single 7mm dynamic driver
Ceramic housing
Impedance: 32Ω
Sensitivity: 125dB
Distortion: <  0.06% 1 KHz, 94 dB
Weight: 8g w/o cord

Price paid: €700 (~ $950)

 


In the Box:


5 pairs of proprietary, different sized silicon tips
Very nice medium sized leather carrying case
Cleaning tool
Instruction manual

 

700

 


Sound Quality:


„Dude, what’s with the fit/design chapter, did you leave that one out?“
„Nope, but I thought I’d tell you the better news first.“  wink.gif


(Disclaimer/words of caution: I don't hear much above 16kHz, so take my comments about highs with a grain of salt.)


I’ve been using the IE800 for more than a month on a daily basis. I’ve noticed no noteworthy burn-in effects during that period. My primary sources are a Samsung Galaxy S3 (EU version) and a Cowon i9, but I’ve also tried the Senns with my Xin supermicro IV and Graham Slee Voyager amps. Impressions from unequalized sources have been pretty consistent, with no significant benefit from amping.


Sound signature: The IE800’s overall sound signature is reasonably balanced throughout the highs and mids, with a gradual emphasis towards low bass. See post #2, if you want to (re-)read my detailed listening impressions and comparisons from the IE800 thread.


Bass: Awesome extension and kick for such a small driver. Good clarity, control and definition at low to medium volume, but ultimately a bit too bloated. More emphasis on low bass than on mid/upper bass (similar to the Yamaha EPH-100 and Sony MH1). As a result, mids remain widely unaffected, though there’s a gradual decrease of clarity/control in bass and increase of lower midrange warmth as you crank up the volume.


Mids: The IE800’s undisputed strong point. Extremely clear and hyper-detailed, but not at all in an aggressive or artificially dissecting way. To the contrary: the Senn‘s mids are probably the most natural and refined of all IEMs I’ve heard (including the custom UERM and JH13). Very good timbre with voices and acoustic instruments. Vocals in particular have a sublime quality of just „being there“, eerily lifelike and tangible.


Highs: Almost at eye level with the mids, extended, smooth and highly resolving. The level of detail is stunning at first, but on careful listening treble turns out to be slightly too thin for a realistic timbre. Nitpicking, I know, but think drumsticks sounding a bit like pencils, audience applause reminiscent of crumpling cellophane, and you get the idea. Depending on fit (see next chapter) there’s also a tendency to exaggerate sibilance, though as a whole, treble is far from sounding harsh or overly aggressive.


Transparency: Source transparency is excellent throughout the midrange and highs, but noticeably impaired by exaggerated bass. However, it's worth mentoning that on the go the IE800’s bass boost compensates for the masking effect of ambient noise, and perceived transparency is better than in quiet surroundings.


Dynamics / Soundstage / Separation / Imaging: The Senn‘s super-clear mids convey a feeling of directness and intimacy without much forward projection, but the driver‘s good dynamics make for excellent depth and layering. Owing to their very high resolution, the IE800’s separation is impeccable, with well defined space for instruments and vocalists. Stage width and presence of a center image vary a bit between downward and over-ear, and I’ve found imaging a bit more coherent with cables worn downward (see post #2 for details). Overall I’d characterize the IE800’s soundstage as neither overly spacious like the IE8's, nor lacking or closed-in, but above all with a quite extraordinary sense of depth.

 

Listening impressions / Comparisons to other IEMs: see post #2

 

700

 

 

Design / Fit / Build Quality


I’m afraid, this is the part where things get frustrating...


...not regarding build quality, mind you, so let’s get this out of the way: build quality feels top-notch overall, from seemingly indestructible ceramic housings to highest quality cables with proper strain reliefs. I can’t foresee any potential issues here, except maybe for the tips – but more about that later.


...but regarding fit and design: here’s how I summed up my impressions in an earlier post:

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by james444 View Post

Seriously guys, I would have been entirely happy if they'd just kept the IE8/80 design. More supple and less microphonic cable, removable at the earpieces, over-ear friendly length, optional short replacement cable. It was pretty much perfect in my book.

 

The new design is a complete dud in comparison. Seems almost like they let the trainee do it.

 

Sorry to say, after more than a month of hands-on experience, I can't take a single word of that back.

 

Short upper cable / Microphonics: Sennheiser opted for a two piece cable design with a 2.5mm connector at the splitter. For some reason they made the IE800's upper cables less supple and more microphonic than the IE8's, and on top of that only 25cm (9.8 inches) long, which is just a tad too short to wear them comfortably over the ear. As a result, you can choose between enduring micophonics if you wear them downwards, and getting semi-strangled if you try to wear them over the ear.

 

(A/N: There's not even a shirt clip included to tame cable microphonics. An attentive MOT volunteered to offer a free Senn clip with the IE800. Thought I'd link it here, but for some strange reason the offer has since been deleted from the thread.)

 

Over-ear / Behind the neck: Since neither downwards nor regular over-ear seems like an ideal choice to wear the IE800, you could choose to wear them over-ear with the cable down your back (the way musicians wear their stage monitors). While I can get a reasonably secure fit by tightening the cable cinch at the neck, the cable is just too short to reach to my front jeans pocket.

 

Wireless headset: Using only the upper part of the cable together with a Nokia AD-53 adapter (2.5 to 3.5mm) and a wireless dongle like the Samsung HS3000 is a convenient solution. In fact this is how I use the IE800 for commuting, either cable down with the dongle clipped to my jacket, or over the ear with the dongle clipped to the shirt collar behind my neck. The latter is extremely handy and devoid of all microphonics, but obviously I can't use the dongle for phone calls that way.

 

Seal / Isolation: Due to the IE800's tiny housings, it would be pretty easy to get a secure deep seal, if it weren't for their awkwardly placed strain reliefs. In fact, with cable-down you get just about 15mm insertion depth until the strain reliefs hit your ear and prevent further insertion. A deeper and more secure seal can be obtained with over-ear. Isolation with cable-down is slightly better than the IE8's and further improved with deeper over-ear fit, but still stays well below Westone and Shure isolation levels.

 

Wind noise: The IE800's twin vents protrude like chimneys from a roof. As a result, the Senns are quite prone to wind noise, depending on insertion depth. The less those vents protrude from your pinna, the less the noise. Unfortunately the strain reliefs makes deep insertion a no-go with downward fit, so your best bet to avoid wind noise is to wear them over-ears with a deeper fit (if you can).

 

Proprietary Tips: The IE800 use proprietary tips that snap directly onto the earpieces, so there's no nozzle to speak of and no way to use third party tips (except maybe for mounting them on top of the stock tips). There are 5 sizes of tips included, so in all likelihood they should fit all ears. Sadly, from my experience this new snap-on solution is not as reliable as properly fitted conventional tips, and I've had tips come off twice during my first month of mobile use. Luckily I've noticed it on both occasions and was able to retrieve the lost tip, but I'm constantly worried as a result. Losing even a single proprietary tip of the size that fits you, means your IE800 are pretty much shot unless you buy spare tips from Sennheiser.

 

700

 

 

Final Thoughts / Conclusion

 

I've been a big fan of the IE8 and thought their design and build quality was almost perfect. They just had that obtrusive huge mid/upper bass hump and fell a bit short in clarity and resolution, compared with the very best IEMs. Therefore I had high hopes for the IE800, because from my point of view Sennheiser just needed to retain the IE8's many strengths and improve on a few weaknesses. At almost three times the price, I expected the IE800 to deliver nothing less than exactly that.

 

Well, the one thing I was right about is clarity and resolution. The new Senns are among the clearest and most detailed IEMs I've ever heard, and there's not the slightest trace of the IE8's notorious midrange veil. In fact, their mids are so natural and gorgeous, that I believe the IE800 could have been the one to rule them all. Seriously, these new drivers would have had the potential in my book. But sadly, Senn decided that the IE800 needed to retain a considerable amount of their predecessor's bass boost. Granted, they shifted the peak towards deep bass and steered clear of the mids this time, but the result is still so far north of neutral that it impairs transparency quite noticeably. So far, so bad.

 

But to add insult to injury, they also decided that the IE800 needed a complete design revamp, with cool looking twin vents, a modular cable and proprietary snap-on tips. I can only shake my head in amazement at the outcome...

 

So, after all is said an done, I'm left here with a bunch of what-ifs. What if Sennheiser really wanted to get serious about creating a pair of exquisitely balanced high-end reference IEMs, based on their new fantastic driver? What if they'd revamp their design once again, to not only look good, but also be practical? What if they showed their new model to a few experienced IEM users for approval? What if... ? 

Unlikely, I know, but one can wish, no? After all, it's Christmas. smile_phones.gif


Edited by james444 - 3/27/13 at 8:14am
post #2 of 417
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by james444 View Post

IE800 vs. K3003 vs. EX1000:

 

Alanis Morissette - Versions of Violence

 

 

 

IE800: Bass has awesome kick and extension and stays well defined up to 30% volume, but gets too bloated at >=50%. Mids are extremely smooth and natural. Clear and detailed vocals, though the high range is slightly sharp and sibilant. Good dynamics! Soundstage somewhat limited, but well-defined and not closed-in. Overall a highly engaging presentation, very nice.

K3003: Much more "accurate" balance. Bass kicks in when called for and otherwise stays out of the way. Extension maybe a tad less than the Senns, but still goes very deep. No bloat even at higher volume. As a result, everything sounds better separated and more transparent, but also a tad more restrained. Excellent vocals, maybe ever so slightly less smooth and natural than on the IE800, but also less sibilant. Dynamics and soundstage on par with the IE800. Overall slight nod towards the AKGs over the IE800.

EX1000: About 2 volume steps less sensitive than the others. When volume matched, bass quantity is about the same as on the K3003 (maybe a tad less), but deep bass emphasis is more similar to the IE800. Extension seems bottomless, like on the Senns, but the Sonys kick less than both others due to less mid/upper bass. Slightly more laid-back vocals, conveying more sense of distance and contributing to a huge soundstage, but still great detail and no veil. Slightly less sibilant than the IE800 up to 30% volume, but mid/highs have more raw edge to them and sound less smooth than on the Senns. Highs get noticeably more agressive >= 50% volume and I can see the problem for those who are sensitive to treble and want to drive the Sonys with more juice. Least dynamics, but best soundstage of the bunch. Overall, I think both others suit the song slightly better than the EX1000.

 

 

Indigo Girls - Sugar Tongue (Band Version)

 

 

 

IE800: Thick, deep bass even at only 30% volume, too obtrusive for an acoustic folk/rock song. Spoils the fragile overall balance in my book, even though vocals remain quite clear and natural. Somewhat thinnish cymbals (and tambourine?) seem to be desperately fighting for air, while being mercilessly crushed by overwhelming bass. Not much desire to listen to this song any longer with the Senns... though, granted, vocals are very nice.

K3003: What a relief, everything is where it should be: bass is back to an accompanying role, cymbals regain presence and have nice, brassy timbre. Vocals are just as natural as on the Senns, but appear a bit lighter with less of a darkish hue from deep bass. Stellar dynamics, separation and imaging. Don't think it can get much better with this song on any other phone.

EX1000: Well, it does indeed not get better, but neither much worse. The Sonys sound pretty much on par with the AKGs, nicely balanced, detailed and clear. Percussion is a tad less brassy and dynamics are, again, ever so slightly more restrained, but 3D presentation is best in class. Overall maybe a slight nod to the K3003, but the EX1000 are pretty much at eye level.

 

 

Dave Holland Quintett - Metamorphos

 

 

 

IE800: (I've already covered part of this in an earlier post.) Again, the Senns are somewhat of a mixed bag. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, their enhanced bass gives Dave's bass more room than it should have, even though we're talking about well defined and textured bass. In contrast, cymbals sound rather thin and light, which leads to an overall slightly skewed balance and timbre. On the plus side though, while not being entirely accurate, the whole thing results in an engaging mix of weighty rhythms and feather-light details, which has a fascination of its own. The IE800's microdrivers are fast and clear, almost like BAs, but with DD like texture. Mids detail and timbre are excellent and sax, trombone and vibes sound marvellous. No complaints regarding separation and imaging. Overall perhaps not the most realistic, but still a damn great performance.

K3003: If the Senns have been great with this track, the AKGs manage to sound even a tad better, due to superior bass/treble balance, in both elevation and note weight. I'd also give a slight nod to the K3003 for instrument separation and pinpoint accurate imaging. Even though the Senn's microdriver seems to have some speed advantage over the AKG's bass driver, the latter actually produces clearer bass, due to less bloat. Mids and highs are extremely clear, detailed and about on par with the IE800. Sax, trombone and cymbals sound slightly more brassy (and even more lifelike, by my standards). While the IE800 may possibly come across as slightly more thrilling overall, the K3003 sound less artificially enhanced and suit my taste a bit better.

EX1000: Best bass in class, period. The difference may not be all that significant, but nevertheless, I still think nothing else here can touch the Sony's bass in its almost effortless superiority. Size seems to matter after all, and even though the EX1000's bass from their 16mm drivers has less quantity compared to the IE800's, it still carries more inherent "authority" than the latter's microdrivers can deliver. Anyway, bottomless extended and spot-on low end in my book, at least for the volume levels I usually listen at. Mids are a tad less present than an the others, but far from sounding veiled or missing detail. They're just more inconspicuously integrated with the rest of the frequency range, which adds to my impression that the Sonys offer the most holistic listening experience of the bunch. Cymbals are less brassy than on the K3003, but have better weight than on the IE800. Soundstage is extremely wide with maybe a little less depth than the AKGs, but overall the Sonys feel very 3D and large. Bottom line, a somewhat less energetic, but more realistic performance than the IE800's and about on par with the K3003's.

 

 

Brahms - Symphony #2 (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Haitink)

 

 

 

IE800: The IE8 and IE80 have been excellent choices for classical despite their bass hump and midrange veil, and the IE800 not only follow suit, but raise the bar a good deal higher. There's still a fair amount of bass emphasis, but it rarely gets in the way with classical, and if anything, adds to an engaging and dramatic presentation. Combined with good dynamics, great sense of depth and an ulta-smooth and clear midrange and highs, the Senns offer nothing less than a stellar performance with this piece. Who cares that rendering of flutes and violins is ever so slightly on the thin side in their highest octaves, when everything else sounds simply wonderful and coherent. While soundstage isn't quite as generous and out-of-head than on their predecessors, the IE800 still offer a really nice 3D feel and good layering, combined with immaculate separation and realistic imaging. Overall the Senn's best performance in this shootout.

K3003: Almost there, but not quite... excellent dynamics, great depth and just as engaging as the Senns. Clarity and detail resolution are at eye level, if not a smidgen better than the IE800's. Separation, soundstaging and layering are at least on par. But mids and highs sound ever so slightly less smooth and seductive than on the IE800. Also, overall timbre doesn't feel quite as natural as the Senn's. For the record, I don't really have a problem with the K3003's coherence (like some other members here), but suffice to say that the Senn's single driver design has an advantage over any multi-driver setup in that regard. Long story short, turns out this is the one track in my comparison, that I'd rate the K3003 second to the IE800 with.

EX1000: The Sonys do everything the IE800 do, but in a grander, more effortless and better balanced way. By my standards these are the sole contenders that can render a full orchestra convincingly. Tonal accuracy in both timbre and weight is excellent and natural across the whole frequency range. They may not have the last bit of the Senn's treble smoothness, but still sound more lifelike, even in the highs (and far from harsh or grainy to my ears). Enough said, in my personal opinion, the EX1000 still rule supreme with classical.

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by james444 View Post

Sennheiser IE800 vs. Final Audio FI-BA-SS

 

Planned to do a head to head comparison between these two, with a variety of sample tracks I'm very familiar with, and ended up listening to a one minute loop from this track for almost a full hour:

 

 

The loop I listened to is from 1:35 to 2:35, basically the end of the chorus and the subsequent instrumental part. It shows the differences between these two IEMs more than anything else I've thrown at them.

 

Bass: The FI-BA-SS render the bass accompaniment almost perfectly, their bass is dry, fast and delicately textured, with just the right quantity and fine detail. The IE800's bass is thicker, exaggerated and less delicate and detailed in comparison. I wouldn't say it spoils the song, but it's definitely out of balance and leaves all other instruments less room to breathe. Clear preference towards the FI-BA-SS.

 

Mids: Surprisingly similar, slightly forward on both (the FI-BA-SS maybe a tad more so), but not too much in your face, extremely clear and detailed. The IE800 have a slight warmish hue from their bass excess, but no smear. Their dynamic drivers sound ever so slightly smoother and more natural than the FAD's armatures, but the difference isn't very pronounced in my book. Slight preference towards the IE800, even though the FI-BA-SS may be a tad less colored.


Highs: The FI-BA-SS' highs are vibrant with energy and airiness, cymbals are rendered in great detail, with nice shimmer and sparkle. At first listen, the IE800's highs appeared to be equally detailed and even a tad thinner and more delicate, though less airy and sparkly. But something kept bothering me about the Senn's highs, and with repeated A/B listening I came to realize, that the FADs retain noticeably better detail and realism during the decay of cymbals, whereas the IE800's decay sounds somewhat rushed and simplistic in comparison. Clear preference towards the FI-BA-SS.

 

I didn't prolong the listening session to compare soundstage, etc., because listening to a one minute loop for almost an hour left me pretty exhausted, lol. Sorry, I'll eventually hand that in at a later date...

 

Bottom line, the outcome of this A/B comparison is unexpectedly clear, as I prefer the FI-BA-SS over the IE800 by quite some margin. Only in the midrange can the Senns hold their own against the FADs and sound even a tad more natural. But both bass and highs are ultimately not quite at eye level with the latter, to my ears. Thanks for reading. smile_phones.gif

 

Quote:

Originally Posted by james444 View Post
 

Sennheiser IE800: bass and treble weight

 

I give you an example: listen to this track from about 03:00 to 04:00. There's the vibes on the left, Dave on bass in the middle and the drummer at the right. I believe he's mainly working the hi-hat, so that may not be ideal, but still good enough to illustrate what I mean. I've seen Dave Holland live a few times and he usually stands a few steps back and leaves the center stage to his soloists.

 

Anyway, listening to this piece with the IE800, Dave sounds as if he's playing totally front/center, cause bass is noticeably enhanced. The vibes on the left sound about right and very natural (the Senn's mids are really marvellous). However, the drummer on the right sounds almost as if he's using pencils instead of drum sticks, cause treble is rather thinnish and light. It's hard to describe sound impressions half-decently, but I hope you get the picture.

 

 

post #3 of 417

Awesome review! Thank you very much and Happy Christmas!

post #4 of 417

Very impressive review james444, especially the 3 great IEM comparison parts.

And wow.. your preferred type of song/music, almost nothing similar to mine except the Diana Krall song.

 

Personally I have no idea how the 3 top tier IEM sound like as I've never audition any of them before. This is because personally I preferred to play my collection CD songs or music completely without any track skip with my greatly setup audio gear in my audio room. Nothing spectacular about the brand of equipments I used, but they are perfectly match and nicely setup.

 

To date I am still strongly prefer to play my great collection CD's with any great setup audio system instead of any small IEM or headphones. No offence, I've believed the different about both listening not just better, not just by a lot, but they are by very HUGE margin.

post #5 of 417

Merry Christmas James!

 

Agree on just about all fronts for the IE800; I think Senn went out of their way to pander to the crowd of young i-bankers that got their first Christmas bonus and wanted something to spend with the money leftover from their Hublot Big Bang purchase, and hence, the design. It might also have to do with the fact that the twin vents probably don't work in a side-mounted configuration. With that being said, the IE800 is bassy, but very enjoyable nevertheless.

post #6 of 417
Thread Starter 

Spot-on observation, Tom. So the IE800 are catering to young i-bankers and the K3003 to aging CEOs who can't stand much bass any more. wink.gif

 

I think, even with rear-mounted vents, you could make them less exposed and susceptible to wind noise.

 

Anyway, thanks and merry Christmas to you all!  

post #7 of 417

Thanks James, nice review for Christmas reading!

 

I briefly tried the IE800 a few days ago, and it came to my surprise as how much bass they have. I can't really remember much of the sound of the IE8, but these things have monstrous bass! The big improvement I feel is the IE800 has more presence in the low-bass, which IMO make the overall bass of the IE800 sound incredibly fun! But then, I found that they have too much mid-bass and upper-bass for me.

 

They also gave me an impression that the sound is slightly V-shaped. The mids isn't laid back or recessed, but I found the bass and treble are too prominent, that they tend to take away my attention from the mid-range. Tonally, I didn't see any major flaws, they are quite neutral in mid-range to me. I also think the treb though have good extension and detail, it sounds a bit thin, and I thought it could have been more refined.

 

The details overall isn't the best I have heard from IEM, but they are still better than most of dynamic-based IEM from my experience. The soundstage is about average, but they have good imaging and sound very airy to me (which I like). At the end of the day, what left me impressed about the IE800 are the bass and treble extension, there is no deny that I found they are very fun to listen to. However, as a whole, when considering the price, it is such a let down.

 

I sure didn't spend enough time with them to give out conclusion, and especially since I only tried them with 1 DAP (my Zune HD), but still, I hope Sennheiser could have done better with the IE800, and I'm sure they could.

A friend of mine, who also tried them, has pretty much the same opinion. His source is iTouch + iQube v2, he said the IE800 sound way too bassy with the iQube, and he prefers the iTouch with no amp.


Edited by nhat_thanh - 12/24/12 at 5:57am
post #8 of 417

Great review, James! Thank you and Merry Christmas!

post #9 of 417
Oh I'm being rude.. Forgotten the most important occasion
A Merry Christmas to james444, ultrazino, tomscy2000, nhat_thanh and putente.

Last but not least, think it's time for me to redo a new audition to top tier iem and headphones to see if they can change my ancient perception about them long long time ago. For some info, I'm used to be involve in audiophile circle for many years before I switch line and hobby to something else back in 1995.
post #10 of 417

I have tried the IE800 with the vents covered.

I didn't like IE8s with vents covered though.

 

But figure since you had them why not give it a try.

The effects that I could hear from demos was lesser bass, the exact same response just like IE8.

Just that you could cover one vent instead of both and play around.

post #11 of 417

Thanks for the detailed impressions, James.

 

I'm actually planning on picking these up, but they're either not available yet or just terribly overpriced (by a few hundred USD) at my usual suppliers. Otherwise I'd have them by now.

 

I suppose I'm alone here, but I actually love the way these are designed. Way more than the IE80. : P

post #12 of 417
Well you're a female so I guess we shouldn't be surprised that you'd favor aesthetics over functionality/usability/practicality.

ZING! :-p
post #13 of 417
Quote:
Originally Posted by Selenium View Post

Well you're a female so I guess we shouldn't be surprised that you'd favor aesthetics over functionality/usability/practicality.
ZING! :-p

 

 

I like the way they look because they remind me of H. R. Giger.

 

 

 

1000

post #14 of 417

LOL - those are some bass ports !!!

Quote:
Originally Posted by MuppetFace View Post

 

 

I like the way they look because they remind me of H. R. Giger.

 

 

 

1000

post #15 of 417

@james444

 

 

since the highs are at eye level with the mids like W4, are the highs of these thinner than the W4's?

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